In the spring of 1968, my father ran his sailboat onto a coral reef in the Bahamas. After swimming to shore from the half-sunken wreck, he wound up spending several weeks on Cat Island, in the Out Islands. My father—a marine artist—passed the time ashore sketching scenes of Bahamian life. My mother heard the news back home in South Carolina from our small town’s gossipy postmaster, who had a habit of reading other people’s mail, especially intriguingly stamped postcards requesting a wire transfer of funds from a remote island. Needless to say, both men got a wicked tongue-lashing. That didn’t stop Dad from falling in love with this tiny dot in the ocean. For years after this high-seas adventure, he talked glowingly about the island’s empty beaches, certain illegal crops, and the gracious locals who owned a guesthouse where he stayed until the weekly mail boat fetched him back to Nassau. (This was long before the island had hotels or an airstrip.) And on that homeward voyage, tucked in his duffel bag for me, he had a shell-decorated straw hat with Bahamas stitched in pink on the brim.
The Out Islands. There’s something about the collective designation that implies an appealing remove from the mainland. Yet this Bahamian barrier chain is not far off the coast of Florida, starting at a latitude parallel with West Palm Beach and sweeping southeasterly. It wraps around the world’s third-largest reef system and a mile-deep abyss named Tongue of the Ocean. Beyond the capital of Nassau, on New Providence, with its casinos and gargantuan cruise-ship port, these low-lying coral islands and cays are sparsely populated by the steadfast descendants of English Puritans, African slaves, and Loyalist planters who moved from the Carolinas after winding up on the losing side of the American Revolution. (Had they not fought on the winning side, my own cotton-planting ancestors from Charleston might have landed here instead.) Even the lilting English spoken by some islanders is based on an antiquated dialect that has nearly disappeared from the Western Hemisphere.
Apart from 2,300-square-mile Andros, many of the Out Islands barely register on a GPS; historically, their size made them the ideal hideout for salty dogs on the shady side of the law, from the pirate Edward Teach to smugglers of “square grouper” (bales of marijuana) en route from South America to South Beach. But not all mariners were intent on illegal gains. Hemingway fished for marlin off Bimini; San Salvador was arguably the first landfall for the Niña, Pinta, and Santa María. And that most famous pirate of the Caribbean, actor Johnny Depp, now owns 45-acre Little Hall’s Pond Cay. My own semi-piratical parent was drawn here as well, by the mangrove-lined bonefish flats and potent rum punches. Recently, I followed his course around the islands he loved best, from tiny Staniel Cay, in the Exumas, to fishing villages in the Abacos and Eleuthera, and ultimately Cat Island, as a way to reconnect with a wayward man often absent from home on long voyages during my childhood. Although he always returned with beguiling souvenirs, like my Bahamian straw hat, to assuage the family he left behind on shore, it was never the same as getting to tag along. I intended to see for myself the places that he painted so evocatively, although I would stay in some of the Bahamas’ most charming guesthouses, inns, and hotels, rather than on a leaky boat.